Could AI find alien life faster than humans, and would it tell us?


Turn a radio telescope to the stars in the sky, and it’s instantly deafened. From pulsars to radio galaxies, and ionospheric disturbances in the atmosphere to radio-frequency interference (RFI) from our own technology, the sky is a cacophony of radio noise. And somewhere, among all that, may lie a needle in a haystack: a signal from another world.


For over 60 years scientists have been scanning the skies in the search for extraterrestrial life but have yet to find any aliens. When you consider the sheer volume of search space — all those stars, all those radio frequencies — versus our limited searches so far, then it’s little wonder we’ve not found ET yet. It’s a daunting task, especially for a human. Thankfully, we’ve got some non-human intelligence to join the search.




The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is reaching critical mass, in our everyday lives and in science, so it is no surprise that it’s now being employed in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). AI is already helping astronomers make incredible discoveries. Here’s how. We’re not talking about Skynet, or the machines from The Matrix movies, or even Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data. The AI that is so in vogue at present is based on machine-learning algorithms designed to do very specific jobs, even if it’s just to talk to you on ChatGPT.


To explain how AI is assisting in SETI, astronomer and SETI researcher Eamonn Kerins of the University of Manchester compares it to the needle in a haystack problem. “You basically treat the data as though it’s the hay,” Kerins told “Then you’re asking the machine-learning algorithm to tell you if there is anything in the data that isn’t hay, and that hopefully is the needle in the haystack — unless there’s other stuff in the haystack too.”


That other stuff is usually RFI, but the machine-learning algorithm is trained to recognize all the types of RFI we already know about. Those signals — the familiar patterns of mobile phones, local radio transmitters, electronics and so on — are the hay. The training involves “injecting signals into the data and then the algorithm learns to look for signals that are like that,” Steve Croft, an astronomer with the Breakthrough Listen SETI project at the University of California, Berkeley, told The algorithm learns to spot the patterns of these familiar signals and disregard them. Should it spot something in the data that it hasn’t been trained on, then it flags this up as something interesting that requires a human to follow up on.


“There have been attempts recently at sifting through some of the Breakthrough Listen data with a machine-learning algorithm,” said Kerins. “The data had already been combed through quite carefully previously by more conventional means, but yet the algorithm was still able to pick out new signals after being trained on the stuff that we know about.”


This project was led by Croft and an undergraduate student, Peter Ma of the University of Toronto, who wrote the algorithm and put it to work analyzing data from 820 stars observed by the 100-meter radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. The data, totaling 489 hours’ worth of observations, contained millions of radio signals, almost all of which were human-made interference. The algorithm checked every single one of them and found eight signals that did not match anything it had been trained on and which had been missed by earlier analyses of the data.

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Rate of climate-induced extinction is ‘shocking’


A study of a lizard species in Arizona revealed that nearly 70 years’ worth of climate-related extinction occurred in just seven years.


Researchers surveyed populations of the Yarrow’s spiny lizard in 18 mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and analyzed the rate of climate-related extinction over time. “The magnitude of extinction we found over the past seven years was similar to that seen in other studies that spanned almost 70 years,” says John J. Wiens, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Arizona and senior author of the study in Ecology Letters.


The Yarrow’s spiny lizard native to the southwestern US and western Mexico can be spotted in oak and pine forests in 18 of Arizona’s Sky Islands mountain ranges. Wiens and his group did initial surveys of the Yarrow’s spiny lizard in these mountain ranges in 2014 and 2015.


In 2021 and 2022, Wiens, along with Kim Holzmann, his former master’s student and the new study’s lead author, and Ramona Walls, a part-time researcher at the University of Arizona’s BIO5 institute, resurveyed to investigate if there had been any changes in the lizard populations since then.


They found that about half of the lizard populations at lower elevations had disappeared. This is because temperatures are warmer at lower elevations, Wiens says, and the lizards at lower elevations were presumably not able to tolerate the increasing heat. This loss of low-elevation populations is a signature pattern of climate change, he says. “The rate of extinction in such a short time period was shocking,” Wiens says.


After comparing the findings to historical records from the same mountain ranges, Wiens’ group found that the average extinction rate of the lizard populations at low elevations had tripled over the past seven years, relative to the preceding 42 years. Although previous studies have predicted that climate-related extinctions will increase with the rising pace of global warming, Wiens says he hasn’t seen any showing that this acceleration of extinction has already happened.


Also, a distinct 3-million-year-old lineage of the Yarrow’s spiny lizard from the Mule Mountains, near Bisbee, may be completely extinct by 2025, Wiens says. “The low-elevation populations in the Mules were fine in 2014. Now the only ones that we have found left were within about 300 feet of the top of the mountain in 2022, and they appear to have been losing about 170 feet per year,” he says.


However, not all low-elevation populations went extinct between the surveys, Wiens says. For example, two populations that occurred at very low elevations survived. Before they disappeared, the research group had collected genomic data from most of those populations in 2014 and 2015. They found that those populations that were less genetically variable and were exposed to greater climate change effects were the ones that tended to go extinct. This suggests that the populations with less genetic variation had less ability to adapt to climate change.

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How the Current Bird Flu Strain Evolved To Be So Deadly


Genetic changes to avian influenza viruses have led to spread among many wild species, creating an uncontrollable global outbreak. Researchers studying the evolution of the bird flu virus over the past 18 years have shown how the strain currently circulating worldwide, an extremely deadly form of the H5N1 subtype, has become increasingly infectious to wild birds. The strain emerged in Europe in 2020, and has spread to an unprecedented number of countries. The study, published in Nature on the 18th October 2023 looked at changes to the virus’s genome over time and used data on reported outbreaks to track how it spread. In 2020, the rate of spread among wild birds was three times faster than that in farmed poultry, because of mutations that allowed the virus to adapt to diverse species. “What was once very clearly a poultry pathogen has now become an animal-health issue much more broadly,” says Andy Ramey, a wildlife geneticist at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. “That has implications for wildlife and domestic poultry as well as us humans that rely upon these resources.”


Research Cited published in Nature (Oct. 18, 2023): 

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NASA’s Bennu Asteroid Sample Contains Abundant Carbon and Water


Initial studies of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu sample collected in space and brought to Earth by NASA show evidence of high-carbon content and water, which together could indicate the building blocks of life on Earth may be found in the rock. NASA made the news Wednesday from its Johnson Space Center in Houston where leadership and scientists showed off the asteroid material for the first time since it landed in September.


This finding was part of a preliminary assessment of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) science team. “The OSIRIS-REx sample is the biggest carbon-rich asteroid sample ever delivered to Earth and will help scientists investigate the origins of life on our own planet for generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from. NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond. The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before.”  


Although more work is needed to understand the nature of the carbon compounds found, the initial discovery bodes well for future analyses of the asteroid sample. The secrets held within the rocks and dust from the asteroid will be studied for decades to come, offering insights into how our solar system was formed, how the precursor materials to life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions need to be taken to avoid asteroid collisions with our home planet.


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Study elucidates evolution of mosquitoes and their hosts


Researchers at North Carolina State University and global collaborators have mapped the mosquito’s tree of life, a major step toward understanding important traits, such as how the insects choose their hosts, feed on blood and spread disease. The findings will help researchers make better predictions to model disease transmission and understand what makes some mosquitoes better disease carriers than others.


The research suggests that mosquito evolution over the past 200 million years mirrors the Earth’s history of shifting land masses and changing host organisms, says Dr. Brian Wiegmann, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Entomology at NC State and corresponding author of a paper describing the mosquito family tree, published in Nature Communications.


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Microsoft is hiring a nuclear energy expert to help power data centers with small nuclear reactors


Artificial intelligence takes a lot of compute power, and Microsoft is putting together a road map for powering that computation with small nuclear reactors. That’s according to a job description Microsoft posted Thursday seeking a nuclear technology expert to lead the company’s technical assessment for integrating small modular nuclear reactors and microreactors “to power the datacenters that the Microsoft Cloud and AI reside on,” the job posting reads.


Specifically, Microsoft is looking to hire a “principal program manager for nuclear technology” and that person “will be responsible for maturing and implementing a global Small Modular Reactor (SMR) and microreactor energy strategy,” the job posting reads. Microsoft is looking to generate energy with nuclear fission, which is when an atom splits and releases energy as a result of that splitting.


News of this job description was first reported on DCD, a website about data centers. In January 2023, Microsoft announced a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, maker of viral AI chatbot ChatGPT. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, is also the chairman of the board of TerraPower, a nuclear innovation company in the process of developing and scaling small modular reactor designs. TerraPower “does not currently have any agreements to sell reactors to Microsoft,” a spokesperson told CNBC. However, Microsoft has publicly committed to pursuing nuclear energy from an innovator in the fusion space.


In May, Microsoft announced it signed a power purchase agreement with Helion, a nuclear fusion startup, to buy electricity from it in 2028. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, is an early and significant investor in Helion. Nuclear fusion occurs when two smaller atomic nuclei smash together to form a heavier atom and release tremendous quantities of energy in the process. It is the way in which the sun makes power. Fusion has not yet been recreated at scale here on earth, but many venture-backed startups are working to make it a reality due to the potential promise of virtually unlimited clean energy.


Interest in nuclear energy has increased alongside concerns about climate change in recent years, as nuclear reactors generate electricity without releasing virtually any carbon dioxide emissions.

The existing fleet of nuclear reactors in the U.S. was largely built between 1970 and 1990, and currently generates about 18% of the total electricity in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nuclear energy also makes up 47% of America’s carbon-free electricity in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.


Much of the hope for the next generation of nuclear reactor technology in the U.S. is pinned on smaller nuclear reactors, which Microsoft’s job posting indicates the company is interested in using to power its data centers.

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Adobe Firefly’s generative AI models can now create vector graphics in Adobe Illustrator


Adobe Illustrator is a widely used vector graphics tool for graphic artists and it’s about to join the generative AI era with the launch of the Firefly Vector Model at Adobe’s MAX conference today. Adobe describes the new model as “the world’s first generative AI model focused on producing vector graphics.” Like Firefly for creating images and photos, Firefly for Illustrator will be able to create entire vector graphics from scratch. And like the other Firefly models, the vector model, too, was trained on data from Adobe Stock.


In its beta, Illustrator will now let you create entire scenes through a text prompt. What’s nifty here is that those scenes can consist of multiple objects. So this isn’t just a jumble of vectors that make up the overall graphic but Illustrator will automatically generate these different objects and you can manipulate them individually to your heart’s content, just like any other group or layer in Illustrator.


Alexandru Costin, Adobe’s VP for generative AI and Sensei, told me the company used tens of millions of vector images in Adobe Stock to train Firefly to enable this new capability. Costin described the process as “a journey” and since there hasn’t been as much work done on using generative AI to create vector drawings compared to the work on creating other images, this surely took a bit more work on the team’s part. He noted that the team focused on creating a model that could generate these images with the fewest possible points, too.


Another new feature that’s coming to Illustrator is called Mockup, which allows Illustrator users to take any 3D scene and then take any vector art and apply it to that 3D scene. That could be a design for a drink can, for example, or a mockup of a new logo on a t-shirt. “Mockup is really exciting to show your customers the art in context so they understand what they’re buying when they contract you as a freelancer,” Costin explained. Also new is Retype, which converts static text in images to editable text — and it’ll find matching fonts, too — and Illustrator is now available on the web, too!

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After 15 years, pulsar timing yields evidence of cosmic background gravitational waves


The universe is humming with gravitational radiation—a very low-frequency rumble that rhythmically stretches and compresses spacetime and the matter embedded in it. That is the conclusion of several groups of researchers from around the world who simultaneously published a slew of journal articles in June describing more than 15 years of observations of millisecond pulsars within our corner of the Milky Way galaxy. At least one group—the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) collaboration—has found compelling evidence that the precise rhythms of these pulsars are affected by the stretching and squeezing of spacetime by these long-wavelength gravitational waves.


“This is key evidence for gravitational waves at very low frequencies,” says Vanderbilt University’s Stephen Taylor, who co-led the search and is the current chair of the collaboration. “After years of work, NANOGrav is opening an entirely new window on the gravitational-wave universe.”



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Severe space weather can mess up bird migrations, a new study indicates


New research indicates that severe space weather events, such as solar flares, disrupt birds’ navigational skills during long migrations.


Previous research has indicated that when flying at night, birds (and many other animals) use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Because solar events disrupt the magnetic field — as well as produce auroras — birds have more difficulty navigating during them. The new study analyzed images taken from 37 NEXRAD Doppler weather radar stations, which can detect groups of migrating birds, as well as data from ground-based magnetometers, to study 23 years of bird migration across the U.S. Great Plains. The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) span from North Dakota to Texas is considered a major migratory corridor for birds.



“The biggest challenge was trying to distill such a large dataset — years and years of ground magnetic field observations — into a geomagnetic disturbance index for each radar site,” Daniel Welling, University of Michigan space scientist said in a statement. “There was a lot of heavy lifting in terms of assessing data quality and validating our final data product to ensure that it was appropriate for this study.”


The work paid off. The researchers discovered that the number of migrating birds in this region decreases by 9 to 17 percent during severe space weather events. They also noticed increased rates of birds becoming lost during migration, a phenomenon known as migratory bird vagrancy.

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